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03 March 2009

Subic hotel-casino proponent now looking for new site in Subic

Despite the raging controversy stirred by allegations of tree cutting to make way for the Ocean 9 hotel-casino project in Subic Freeport, the Korean proponent has not given up on its $120 million project and is now scouting for another location.

Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) administrator Armand Arreza said in a media briefing that Grand Utopia Inc. asked Subic authorities for help in finding another site for its hotel-casino complex.

"We have, in fact, found a suitable new location, but it's not yet final," Arreza said.

He identified a block of waterfront property where the decade-old steel skeleton of an aborted hotel project still stands as a possible site.

"Understandably, Grand Utopia is already impatient because of the delay resulting from the controversy," Arreza said, referring to allegations by noted Filipino architect Felino Palafox Jr. that the project would destroy about 300 trees at the proposed site.

The purported tree cutting has caused uproar among environment, religious and civic groups, although not a single tree has yet been cut, as some independent groups had verified, including Environment Secretary Lito Atienza, who inspected the site last month.

Arreza said what happened was really unfair to Grand Utopia, "because this locator has, since the beginning, indicated its willingness to abide by Philippine laws."

He added if the Ocean 9 proposal would indeed destroy trees, the plan could always be altered or rejected by authorities. "That's why we have laws to guide us in making decisions," he said.

Arreza also called on critics of the project to stop "sensationalizing" the issue for the truth to emerge and the matter resolved rationally.He said the issue is "already moot" since no trees have actually been cut at the project site, and the SBMA and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) have categorically stated they will not allow any tree to be cut.

"This is already a closed case as far as we're concerned, but the problem is somebody continues to muddle the issue," Arreza said, referring to Palafox.

"Palafox fancies himself as a crusader for the environment and a fighter of corruption, but so far he has been making unsubstantiated allegations," Arreza said. "He owes a lot of people explanation for what he' s done," he added.

Arreza said Palafox began "exposing" internal documents about the Ocean 9 hotel-casino project even before Grand Utopia could formally present its plan to the SBMA.

The initial environmental examination (IEE) report for the project was received by the SBMA only in the first week of January this year, but Palafox has been talking about its details since late November, Arreza said.

"That was grossly unethical because he [Palafox], technically, did not own the plans since he was just hired as a project designer," Arreza said.

Palafox claimed last year that he backed out of the project after learning that Grand Utopia intended to cut trees.

Arreza said documents from Grand Utopia indicated that Palafox was precisely hired because he promised the Korean firm to facilitate the granting of an environmental compliance certificate for the project.

SBMA documents also show that an environmental assessment group hired by Palafox for the project's IEE had said in its initial report "tree-balling is highly recommended."

A manifesto from the Council for Built and Natural Environments (CBNE), composed of nine professional organizations, meanwhile, urged "a second look" at the Ocean 9 controversy to "come up with a more objective and intelligent appreciation of the situation."

The CBNE said a fact-finding mission it conducted on February 5 validated that the proposed project site is in Subic's commercial district, there is no natural forest in the proposed project site and that no tree has been cut or felled.

Based on its findings, the group concluded that vegetation in the project site can neither be considered virgin forest, or a natural old-growth forest, and that there are no century-old trees in the area.

The CBNE is composed of the United Architects of the Philippines, Philippine Institute of Environmental Planners, Philippine Association of Landscape Architects, Geological Society of the Philippines, Integrated Chemists of the Philippines, National Master Plumbers Association of the Philippines, Philippine Association of Agriculturists, Philippine Institute of Interior Designers, and the Society of Filipino Foresters. (Henry Empeno, Business Mirror)

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